ESL Program Helps Oklahoman Refugee Parents Advocate for Themselves and Their Children

Esther Cing had to rebuild her life when she fled from violence in Myanmar and settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2016. Esther, who is Zomi, and her family started by trying to find the basic necessities. Fortunately, Esther found a bustling Zomi community in Tulsa, where upwards of 7,000 Zomi/Burmese refugees now live. And through her new community, she also found CAP Tulsa and Early Head Start.

“One of my friends said there is a place where the children have a daycare program, and where there are also English classes,” Esther says.

Recognizing the importance of each of the tasks before her—gathering the essentials for her family and home, learning English, and finding reliable child care—Esther reached out to CAP Tusla for help. CAP Tulsa helped her find furniture, access to food, and other items. And as soon as she could, Esther enrolled two of her three children in Early Head Start, and she enrolled herself in CAP Tulsa’s free English (ESL) classes.

Head Start Serves Refugee Families Across the Country

More than 3.1 million refugees have resettled in the United States since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980. Refugees are people who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin because of persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Head Start and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, partner to help serve refugee parents and families across the country.

Most of the Zomi in the Tulsa area come from the Chin State, which is in northwestern Myanmar bordering India and Bangladesh. Chin State has the highest poverty rate in Myanmar, with nearly six in 10 people living in poverty, and Zomi in the Chin State often suffer persecution because of their religion.

Language Skills and Career Advancement

All three of Esther’s children are now in the CAP Tulsa Early Head Start and Head Start programs, and she’s in the advanced, fourth-year ESL class. She says she’s seen her children’s speech and literacy improve, and she also feels more confident and able to support her family and care for herself as she continues to grow her own English language skills.

“When I started, I didn’t know any of the words. I might understand a little bit, but now I understand most. I have so much confidence speaking in English,” she says. This confidence allows Esther to go to doctor’s appointments by herself or read forms for her children’s schools. “I am really proud of myself,” she says.

Family engagement, such as the ESL classes, has been part of CAP Tulsa since its inception, says Brandy Holleyman, director of Family Advancement. But the organization has focused on strategic engagement even more in the past couple of years.

Karissa Coltman Burnett, CAP’s assistant director of Family Advancement, says CAP Tulsa’s English classes are an example of how the organization expanded its current family engagement programming to meet the needs of the Tulsa community.

“Once we got our Career Advance program off the ground, we realized we needed to offer something for families who are not ready for career training,” Karissa says. Career Advance is a free career training program that offers coaching and job opportunities and pairs families with coaches who work with families who have children eight and younger to support them as they build a future.

“Approximately 35 to 40 percent of our population speaks a language other than English—primarily Spanish and Zomi. So we’ve added our English language classes and customized a lot of our other offerings to meet the needs of our non-English speakers, in particular for our Spanish and Zomi-speaking families,” says Karissa.

When determining the type of language support families need, CAP Tulsa conducted 300 interviews with families.

“What we learned was that our families didn’t want ESL focused solely on career training, they also wanted support to interact with their children’s teacher or doctor—opportunities to help empower them as parents,” Karissa says.

Finding Opportunities to Empower ESL and Refugee Parents

This includes support with topics such as understanding expectations for school, knowing how to contact a school or teacher if a child is absent, and resources to navigate a parent/teacher conference. Often, it can be challenging for families who grew up in another country to navigate the unspoken expectations of the U.S. education system, Karissa says, because those expectations are different from what the parent or caregiver knows.

“Our families care deeply about their children and about their children’s education, but they don’t always have experience from their own country or their lives to draw from. When someone leaves our program, they not only have enhanced their own English skills, but they can be an advocate for their child,” Karissa says.

The English classes also help parents and caregivers advocate for themselves, Brandy says.

“People who’ve been through the program want to celebrate that they are able to visit with their child’s teacher at the school or make a 911 call or ask their physician questions,” she says. “That is really how those new skills are showing up.”

Alejandrina Gonzalez, an ESL participant, says she used to be afraid to shop in a store where workers didn’t speak Spanish. Now, she’s more comfortable doing that.

Alejandrina loves learning English together with her children. “My kids are learning words in school, and when they share what they’re learning with me, it feels like we are learning together,” she says.

Margarita Neri-Velasco, also an ESL participant, says she feels the ESL classes have helped motivate her to support her children’s learning.

“Before, when I received documents or paperwork from school, I wasn’t able to read or understand them,” she says. “Now, I still don’t know 100 percent of the words, but I can understand what the documents are about.”

Alejandrina and Margarita agree they wish more people knew about and were able to participate in the ESL program to support a larger section of Tulsa’s Hispanic community.

“It has helped me a lot, and I’ve had great experiences with the staff,” Margarita says. “I wish there were more opportunities for others to apply for a program like this.”

Early Head Start

This post is one in a series of features about Early Head Start programs across the country. Early Head Start helps families navigate and access the comprehensive, wraparound support they need during the most critical years of their children’s development—prenatal to age three. When all families are able to build a strong foundation for their children, we all have a brighter, healthier future. To help ensure all parents and caregivers have access to Early Head Start support, visit to learn more and become an advocate.

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